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Historic wave of Cuban migrants will have a lasting impact on Florida

An exodus of over 220,000 Cubans have come through the U.S.-Mexico border in the last fiscal year. Over 6,000 more were interdicted at sea in 2021.
An immigrant mother from Cuba sits with her sons after crossing the border from Mexico in Yuma, Ariz.
An immigrant mother from Cuba and her sons after crossing the border from Mexico, as they await processing by the U.S. Border Patrol, in Yuma, Ariz., on May 19.  Mario Tama / Getty Images file

MIAMI, Fla. — Over the past several months, Máximo A. has been working the phones and talking to people he knows to help seven relatives who recently came from Cuba find work in a new city and country.

They all took the most popular route since Cuba’s ally Nicaragua removed visa requirements for Cubans a year ago — flying to the Central American country and then making their way to the U.S.-Mexico border.

Máximo — whose last name is being withheld since he’s worried about his family’s safety — along with other relatives in Miami helped most of the recently arrived Cubans financially — from purchasing the tickets to Nicaragua that cost about $3,500 to paying coyotes to take them through different portions of the trip, including through Guatemala.

“When the employees at the Guatemalan agency heard my Cuban accent, they knew I was there to send money to a coyote, like so many others,” he said. “Why else would a Cuban be sending money to Guatemala?”

Máximo’s relatives are part of an exodus of over 220,000 Cubans who have come through the U.S.-Mexico border in the last fiscal year. Many are fleeing shortages in food, medicine and power, as well as fears of being arrested for speaking out against the government.

The scale of migration is larger than any other from the island and many more are racing to the U.S.-Mexico border, as rumors swirl that the Biden administration is making plans to slash the number of migrants who qualify for asylum, including for Cubans.

“The magnitude of the flow is unprecedented and unheard of,” said Jorge Duany, director of Florida International University’s Cuba Research Institute.

Over 6,000 Cuban migrants were interdicted at sea in 2021 while attempting to cross the Florida straits in makeshift boats. Most are repatriated to Cuba.

People in a makeshift boat with the U.S. flag painted on the side are captured by the Cuban Coast Guard near the Malecon seawall in Havana, Cuba, on Dec. 12, 2022.
People in a makeshift boat with the U.S. flag painted on the side are captured by the Cuban Coast Guard near the Malecon seawall in Havana, Cuba, on Monday. Ramon Espinosa / AP

Almost 29,000 Cubans were apprehended at the U.S.-Mexico border in October, the last month figures are available for. And since October 2,982 Cubans were interdicted at sea.

Even adding up the numbers from the two largest Cuban migration waves — the 1980 Mariel boat lift and the rafter crisis from the 1990s — it still falls short compared to the current wave.

The huge influx of migrants from the communist island, many of whom are settling in Miami — home to the largest Cuban American diaspora — is igniting new life into a community that has already been experiencing the passing of older generations of Cubans who came to the city in the 1960s after Fidel Castro took power in Cuba.

'I didn't think it would be so difficult'

The challenges don’t stop when Cubans arrive in Miami. Many are struggling to find work and housing in a city already saturated with new arrivals from Cuba and other countries. They are navigating the complex world of asylum as authorities have placed hurdles on what used to be a relatively smooth path to becoming U.S. residents.

Local officials were already worried about rising rent prices in the area, a problem that has been brewing for years.

Recent migrants have been staying with relatives until they’re able to find work and a room or efficiency to rent.

“I’ve heard everything, from 20-something people living in a house, to relatives having them for an unlimited amount of time at home,” said Oasis Peña, who works with different organizations that aid and advise newly arrived families on available resources. 

Peña said recent arrivals are relying on an underground network where they find affordable places to rent and jobs “por la izquierda" — which loosely translates to getting jobs through back channels or side gigs, where they don't need formal work authorization. Many find jobs in construction, agriculture or cleaning.

Still, work is not easy to come by. Domingo Garcia, 57, arrived a year ago. He said he has applied for work authorization twice and has not received it. He has resorted to going out each morning, knocking on the doors of businesses, and asking if they would like their windows cleaned for whatever amount they would like to pay him.

“I didn’t think it would be so difficult,” said Domingo. “But I would rather sleep on the street than return to Cuba.”

'It's basically chaos'

Unlike other immigrants, most Cubans have had a relatively easy path to U.S. residency through the Cuban Adjustment Act (CAA), the 1962 law that allowed most Cubans admitted and given immigration parole to apply for residency after a year and a day in the U.S.

Unlike in the past, most Cubans are not being paroled and the majority are now facing challenging asylum cases. The wide range of documents they have to navigate complicates the path to residency through the CAA.

“It’s basically chaos,” said Angel Leal, an immigration attorney in Miami with a large volume of Cuban clients.

One of the documents many Cubans are receiving is called I-220A, also known as an “Order of Release on Recognizance.” Leal and other attorneys are arguing in court cases that the I-220A should be considered a parole. While some Cubans have been able to adjust their status with this document, it is not definitive they will all be able to do so in the future. It is being reviewed by the Board of Immigration Appeals.

“The most frustrating thing is that many of these migrants are released into the country with some sort of document pending immigration court proceedings. In the meantime they are not eligible for employment authorization documents,” said Leal. “Furthermore, their immigration court proceedings sometimes never commence or are scheduled for 2024 or 2025.”

He said that until they reach the point of having an asylum case pending for 150 days, or an application for residency in the case of the CAA, they’re not eligible for work authorization.

'There was nothing to eat'

The current wave of Cuban migration was unimaginable eight years ago, when former President Barack Obama announced the U.S. and Cuba would restore diplomatic ties — a moment when many thought better relations and more travel would bring improved economic conditions.

But 60 years of a Soviet-style, centrally planned economy, along with tightened U.S. sanctions that began under former President Donald Trump and the effects of the pandemic have left Cubans with shortages in food, medicine and power. A heavy crackdown on islandwide, anti-government protests in July 2021 and smaller subsequent demonstrations have left many in the communist island without hope for change.

“The socioeconomic composition, as far as I can tell, is a cross-section of Cuban society in terms of their education and occupational status,” said Duany of the current migrants. “We still have a pretty good sense that they come mostly from cities.”

In the longer term, the historic wave of migrants will have a significant impact on local and national politics.

The newcomers are angry over the situation they endured in Cuba and many say the Cuban government is at fault for not having done enough to reform the economy. Many left behind close relatives, like parents and siblings, who they will soon trying to support through the remittances they send.

Gladys Medina, 51, arrived in Miami two weeks ago with her husband. First, they went to Russia and tried to find a way to come to the U.S. The plan failed, so they returned to Cuba and made their way to the U.S.-Mexico border through Nicaragua.

For now, they're staying with Medina's sister.

"We couldn't bear it any longer. There was nothing to eat. We had a small business and we had to close it because no one would buy anything," said Medina. "On top of that, we couldn't complain or say anything, because we would go to jail."

"In Cuba, everything is blamed on the embargo," she said. "But there are a lot of things that Cuba itself doesn't fix."

As more Cubans become U.S. citizens, they will expand on an influential voter bloc that has historically leaned right.

Some of the newcomers are young and progressive on social issues like abortion. A Florida International University poll on Cubans released in October found that a majority of Cubans who arrived between 2015 and 2022 support Biden and his handling of Cuba policy. Around 64% of those new arrivals view Biden favorably.

But previous waves of Cuban migrants, like those who came in the 1990s during the rafter crisis, also leaned Democratic and then ultimately turned Republican.